HUNTINGTON — With Kentucky’s hepatitis A outbreak now the worst in the nation, state Commissioner for Public Health Dr. Jeffrey Howard Jr. met with about a dozen Tri-State restaurant owners Tuesday in Ashland to hear their concerns, but also to reiterate the outbreak is not as dangerous as perceived — particularly for restaurant patrons.
“What I want people to know is that hepatitis A is a fairly benign disease,” Howard said at a news conference at Kindred Communications in Huntington after the meeting. “We’ve had eight deaths in this outbreak (out of 1,276 confirmed cases), but those people had multiple comorbidities.
“We haven’t seen any cases in this outbreak be related to a food service worker. There just hasn’t been.”
Howard said the disease has been spread instead through environmental contamination — when an infected person touches an item that another person touches, then either eats or otherwise makes hand-to-mouth contact. Nearly every case in Kentucky has been spread either by those exposed to substance abuse or homelessness, he added.
“But we’ve seen nothing spread through food or through a food worker,” Howard said, calling the risk of contracting the disease through food “extraordinarily low.”
Restaurants have been particularly affected by the hepatitis A outbreak — not particularly by the virus itself, but the loss in sales when the disease spreads to food service workers in the area.
Howard said restaurant owners have been cooperative and vigilant in screening employees more closely, reinforcing general hygiene at work, and making sure both the customers and employees are aware of these increased measures.
Many restaurants, he added, have voluntarily vaccinated all their employees at their own cost.
“I think restaurant owners are very cognizant of these issues, are being proactive, and I want our citizens to know that,” Howard said. “Our restaurant owners, especially in this area, are good partners.”
Since the Kentucky outbreak was declared in November, 11 employees at 10 different restaurants in Boyd County have been diagnosed with hepatitis A — mostly in the Ashland area.
The surge in cases is part of a nationwide outbreak that began in San Diego in November 2016 among the Southern California homeless population. The disease has since spread to seven other states, including West Virginia, Indiana and Utah.
Howard said it is not yet known what caused the California outbreak to spread to Kentucky.
Hepatitis A is a viral disease of the liver and is spread from person to person by the “fecal-oral” route, often by inadequate handwashing after using the toilet or changing diapers. Hepatitis A usually spreads when a person unknowingly ingests the virus from objects, food or drinks contaminated by small, undetected amounts of stool from an infected person.
It can take up to 50 days after exposure to the virus for someone to become ill, but most people experience symptoms within 28 to 30 days after being exposed. There is a two-week window for those who might have been exposed to receive the hepatitis A vaccine. After the 14-day window has closed, the vaccine might not be effective.
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